Georgina Beyer, a trailblazing New Zealand politician who in 1999 became the world’s first openly transgender member of Parliament, died Monday at the age of 65.
Friends of Beyer said she died peacefully in hospice care. They did not immediately give a cause of death, although Beyer had previously suffered from kidney failure and underwent a kidney transplant in 2017.
New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said he didn’t know Beyer well personally but knew she had a large following within New Zealand and had made a lasting impression on the nation’s parliament.
“I certainly think that Georgina has blazed a trail that has made it much easier for others to follow,” Hipkins said.
Friend Malcolm Vaughan said Monday he was still with Beyer, who he had known for decades, and didn’t yet feel ready to talk about her life. He and husband Scott Kennedy instead put out a statement.
“Georgie was surrounded by her nearest and dearest 24/7 over the past week, she accepted what was happening, was cracking jokes and had a twinkle in her eye, right until the final moment,” they wrote.
They said she was a national treasure, or “taonga” in Indigenous Māori.
“Farewell Georgie, your love, compassion and all that you have done for the rainbow and many other communities will live on for ever,” they wrote.
Beyer, who was Māori, worked as a sex worker and nightclub performer before turning to politics. In 1995 she was elected mayor of the small North Island town of Carterton. Four years later, she won national office for the liberal Labour Party and remained a lawmaker until 2007.
She helped pass the landmark 2003 Prostitution Reform Act, which decriminalized sex work.
In a speech to lawmakers at the time, she said the protections the new law offered might have spared her being dragged into the sex industry at the age of 16, and from sex workers being threatened and raped without being able to seek help from police.
“I think of all the people I have known in that area who have suffered because of the hypocrisy of our society, which, on the one hand, can accept prostitution, while, on the other hand, wants to push it under the carpet and keep it in the twilight world that it exists in,” she told lawmakers.
In 2004, she helped pass a law allowing same-sex civil unions. Nine years later, New Zealand passed a law allowing same-sex marriage.
Politicians from both sides of the aisle mourned her death Monday. Nicola Willis, the deputy leader of the conservative National Party, recalled Beyer as brave and gracious.
“We came from different political sides but she had the power to breach the divide,” Willis wrote on Twitter.